Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Remember When . . . There Was Just Too Much?

I have a thousand page book I'm reading for research. I have pages and pages of notes. I have 50 half-page sheets of scenes I need to include in my novel. And suddenly (okay, not so suddenly) it hits me: there's just too much.

Sometimes when you're searching for one historical fact, you can't find it to save your life. And sometimes you have so many facts, so much history around a particular event that the novelist has a whole new plight--what should be included, and what has to be shoved aside? What can get a one-line mention later, and what has to be ignore altogether?

This can be an agonizing process, especially for someone like me who genuinely loves history. Reading Herodotus's account of the war between Persia and Greece, I find some cool little tidbit on nearly every page that I'd love to put into my book.

But unless I want that book to be 1000 pages like Herodotus's The Histories . . . um, yeah. I gotta get choosy.

That's what I've been doing this past week. I've been reading and checking my notes, I've been underlining and crossing out. I've been staring at the page going, "Can I work this in? Is it worth it?" and sighing a lot as I decide, "No. It has no relevance to my story."

I know this must be done--a novelist cannot include every single historical detail. But at the same time, I feel like I'm cheating. Like if I don't mention this particular thunderstorm that killed 300 men, I'm going to be denying them their due--or that some crusty old history professor is going to get on the news boycotting my book because I neglected this fact. (Actually, that would be some awesome press! Oh crusty professor! Come rail at me!!)

But that leaves Historical Novelist Me with another problem--making sure I don't err on the opposite side and leave out too much. I don't want to overwhelm my readers . . . but I also want to keep them grounded in the setting, the time, and the events. I want them to get a full dose of what was going on. What if I choose the wrong parts, leave out something vital, and my readers go away feeling like something is missing?

Thankfully I have critters to help ensure this doesn't happen, but still. As I'm agonizing over my notes, it's a concern. I don't want my book to be like history--too heavy in some things and totally missing in others. I want it to be a complete story, the thing a novel can be and history never is. Here's praying God keeps whispering in my ear on that score, eh?

In the past, I've done my fair share of head-shaking when TV or novels leave out details I deem crucial, but I officially get where they're coming from. Yes, tidbits can be cool. Yes, they can be important to history. That doesn't make them relevant.

Unless, of course, y'all would like a 1,000 page novel?? ;-)


  1. I respect authors that pour a great deal of research into books. I can't speak for historical novels b/c I don't read too many of those, but I did read a great novel called Still Alice recently about Alzheimer's, where I could tell the author did her homework.

    It truly makes a difference.
    ~ Wendy

  2. I would never have the patience to write historicals, I would be much better off to just make up stuff and slap a fiction label on it. Kudos to you, this is why your books are brilliant.

  3. That's why I'm a historian who doesn't write historicals - I know the pain you go through to make that particular phrase genuine, or that article of clothing period perfect...or...thank you so much for bothering to do it right!